Claire Braund and Michelle McLean practising the new elbow shake in the wake of COVID-19
WOB was delighted to have Michelle McLean
as our keynote at a Boardroom lunch in Melbourne. Michelle is a portfolio director with three current directorships at the CFA (Deputy Chair), East Gippsland Water and FrontierSI. A key message from Michelle was that there is no one pathway to the boardroom. Rather it’s a series of sometime serendipitous steps, but more usually, some planning and, as her story also demonstrated, a great deal of persistence.
In reality, Michelle’s boardroom journey probably started when she was about six - she always had to be the banker in monopoly and was known to relieve her local bank branch of deposit and withdrawal slips. But it really started after the sad death of her mother when she was 10 – and subsequently took control of the family’s finances at 13 after opening an overdue school fees notice. She simply took over, knowing that her Dad was overwhelmed running the family hotel.
The hard lessons are usually the best
Michelle said she learnt vital lessons in life when least expected. One such lesson was when she decided that she was leaving school at the age of 16.Her Dad didn’t argue with her but insisted that if she wasn’t going to school she needed to work. So, she started working at the family hotel.Strategically given the worst jobs of peeling potatoes and washing dishes, within two weeks Michelle had decided she needed to return to school to complete her HSC (clever Dad!).
Sometimes it’s good to make a change when you are frustrated
With cash being tight, Michelle didn’t have the luxury of studying fulltime after she finished school.So, she elected to study a commerce degree part time while working as office junior in a stock broking firm.
Six years on she was still at the same firm, and only prompted to leave after realising that she hadn’t progressed past junior tasks as she ran her weekly Friday errand to get the CEO’s car washed. Annoyed by still having to do this in the 1990s, Michelle decided to resign, which she says was the best move could have made.Sometimes frustration is a good prompt to take action.
Michelle’s next role was as a junior at then law firm Cornwall Stoddart (now Cornwalls), where she worked for 25 years, building her career to become CEO and Managing Partner within 10 years. During her tenure Michelle had some significant achievements such as being named as one of BRW’s 50 Best Companies to Work in 2009 and 2010.
Lead by example
Michelle’s boardroom journey started when she was at Cornwalls.As a way to encourage a culture of pro-bono work across the firm, pro-bono leave days were introduced for staff. Leading by example, from 2003-2016 she sat on a number of voluntary boards as part of the program, including the Australian Legal Practice Management Association, Overnewton, the Mercy Health Foundation and Equestrian Victoria. This opened her eyes to the boardroom world.
Take responsibly for your own succession
Thinking of her own succession plan, Michelle felt that the boardroom was the next logical step from her CEO role, so she took proactive steps - attending a WOB function in 2014, doing a Getting Started workshop and then completing the AICD Company Directors course. She also made it known to everyone she knew that she wanted to be on boards.
Do something you’re passionate about
Michelle didn’t initially apply for the CFA role but received a phone call after missing out on another state government role. At the time, the whole CFA board had resigned after a protracted dispute and disagreement with the State Government. Initially unsure whether the role was for her and concerned how it would impact her firm, she asked for 24 hours to think about it. After mulling, she recalled advice from the Getting Started workshop - “do something you’re passionate about”. She loved the country and what the CFA did, so made the decision to take the role (with Cornwalls’ blessing).
Think beyond your comfort zone
Michelle stuck it out on the CFA board, despite receiving hate mail in the beginning. Then in 2018 she decided to leave her CEO role and concentrate on boards full time. With a big salary gap and school fees to pay, she needed to find paid board positions.
Based on a referral she took a board role at FrontierSI, a science/tech company. She says it wasn’t something she would normally consider as she didn’t like science at the time. However, on reflection knows she was not appointed for her science expertise, but for her strategic and financial skills, which were much needed. Surprising herself, Michelle says that she’s now very passionate about science and loves what FrontierSI does.
Find a Sponsor
Michelle was directed to FrontierSI by a fellow board member at the CFA, who she says has effectively become her sponsor. She strongly encourages women to find a sponsor as it has proved invaluable to her. She also has a coach that she uses for a range of things including forwarding her roles, helping her prepare applications and doing mock interviews.
Follow up matters
The next step in Michelle’s plan was a water board, so she applied along with 670 other applicants for 200 available board roles. Perplexed when she received a “no thank you” letter without even getting an interview, she called a contact she had and noted her disappointment at not getting an interview. Three weeks later she received a phone call offering her an interview.
This highlights something that WOB often sees. Original applications are culled by junior staff with limited knowledge of skills and applicants. It pays to follow up when you genuinely think you have the skills and experience for a role.
The biggest challenges for Michelle have included:
She’s Found Love
- the vast amount of time required (more than she expected);
- not having a support team around you;
- not having a PA (this is a killer she says);
- having to do all admin herself;
- the risks of being on a board, especially in light of the industrial manslaughter law that will be introduced on 1 July;
- always needing to think about your next role, given terms are 2-4 years.
Despite the challenges, Michelle says she absolutely loves it
and that ultimately, she’s learned that:
- There’s no set of prescribed skills to take you to the boardroom; it’s really a personal journey.
- You need to understand the numbers and how they relate to the strategy.
- Think about your own succession plan continually.
- Build a network.
- Undertake professional development to keep yourself abreast of the landscape.
- Get a sponsor and a coach (Michelle has both).
- If your reputation is unreasonably questioned, do something about it.
- Do your due diligence before accepting a position – know who else is on the board and who the Chair is.